Books / Film / Reviews

Dear NPR: Hazel is not Spiderman (A response to the Diane Rhem Show’s “Readers’ Review of The Fault in Our Stars”)

By: Rebekah Fitzsimmons

Dear NPR:

I am normally a big fan of your programming; if I weren’t a very poor graduate student, I would likely be a financial supporter as well. So, when I say that I was really really disappointed by your Wednesday, June 25th episode of the Diane Rehm Show, I want you to know, it is coming from a place of love and frequent listening.

The episode, entitled “Readers’ Review: ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green,” was a book-club style evaluation of the recent YA phenomenon novel and film. As a scholar who studies YA literature, my disappointment with the show does not stem from a fan-girl’s disappointment that the panelists did not like the book, but from the overall ignorance of the panelists about the subject matter they were discussing as well as from the startlingly naïve stereotypes they perpetuated about children, young adults, and people with severe illness.

First, I was quite disappointed in the panelists chosen for the show. While each guest is involved with young adult literature in some way (Louis Bayard, is an author of adult books who expresses some vitriolic disgust about being asked to write a YA book; David McCullough Jr is a high school teacher and author of the new book, “You Are Not Special”; and Lizzie Skurnick is the Editor-In-Chief of a publishing imprint that re-releases out-of-print young adult literature from the previous century), all three seem woefully unprepared to discuss this novel.

The host, Katty Kay (sitting in for Ms. Rehm) mistakenly repeats on several occasions that both Hazel and Gus die in the novel, which is factually inaccurate, and she is not corrected by any of the other panelists. Bayard repeatedly criticizes the way the teens in the novel speak, saying they sound more like John Green, but then confesses, “the way they express their wisdom is the way a — I don’t know how old John Green is, but the way a married, mature man would discuss it.” The panel criticizes the casting of Shaliene Woodley to play a 15-year-old character, but none of them actually know how old Woodley is:

From the transcript:

MCCULLOUGH: Who’s probably 22 or 3 years old. Why don’t they cast a 16-year-old to play a 16-year old

SKURNICK: I actually think she’s one of – I don’t now. But I think she’s one of the teen actresses that is actually that age. KAY: We’ll have to get a reader to fill us in on that one and give us the facts on that one (11:14:38-11:14:53).

As these mistakes, misquotes and “I don’t knows” continue to pile up throughout the program, it becomes clear that the panel is woefully unprepared for this discussion. It seems difficult to believe that there weren’t more informed, better prepared panelists to be had for this discussion.

As frustrating as the factual errors were, the second major issue with the program was the condescending attitude displayed towards teens by all of the panelists. Over and over again, the panelists reference the idea that “If these [characters] were normal teenagers,” they would be shallow, stupid, uninformed, much less well read, and unable to think about anyone but themselves. The panelists continually discuss how unrealistic it was for these kids to be able to speak ironically about their illness, make references to literature, or empathize with people around them because they are supposed to be teenagers. According to McCullough, “The vocabulary, the facility with the language, the sophistication of the thoughts for me rendered these characters implausible” (11:23:31).

The panelists all agree that “regular” teenagers don’t read books, memorize poems, talk about complex concepts or understand the larger issues in life, which makes Hazel, Gus and all of their friends completely unrealistic characters. For example, in this longer excerpt from the show, Bayard, Kay and Skurnick all discuss how cool the characters are, and how their maturity and adult sensibilities must stem from Green’s authorial presence than any real depiction of teenagers:

BAYARD (11:10:41): These are the kids that you’d want to be, if you could take away the terminal cancer diagnosis. These are the people you’d want to be…

KAY: But isn’t it also the fact, of course, that they have the terminal cancer diagnosis, and that they are spending time dealing with these big meta issues of life and death and their parents and relationships and how short, tough and infinity and oblivion, that makes them — if they were just regular teenagers, I wonder whether this book would have been as stratospheric. I mean, it is that added element, isn’t it, as David was suggesting — intensity.

BAYARD: They deal with those issues so astutely, and she has such facility with the language, that she has the sensibility of a middle-aged college professor.

SKURNICK: Well, she has the sensibility of Green.

BAYARD: Yes. They all do.

SKURNICK: And I think that’s very — yeah, they all do. Which, you know, and I think that is a delightful sensibility. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s wonderful. But to find it in every single character. You know, if I had a child who had cancer, who spoke so ironically, constantly, you know, I might shake her and slap her and say, you know…

KAY: You don’t have to be funny all the time.

BAYARD: Save that for when you’re 35. (11:11:53)

It is clear throughout the discussion that the panelists have a very low opinion of teens, their mental and emotional capacities, and their desire to learn, read, or interact with adults. And, just in case listeners thought their low opinion carried over only to fictional teens, a 12-year-old girl, Jesse, from Virginia, called into the show. Kay asked Jesse about her thoughts on Hazel, and this was the following exchange:

JESSE (11:43:41): Yes, it was. I felt like she kept herself strong. And she kept Gus strong. And she sort of had this realization that, you know, there is a chance that she might die, and, you know, she’ll still battle through this. And she can do it, even though she had her hard times.

MCCULLOUGH: (11:44:02) Are you really 12?

When confronted with an eloquent, well-spoken young adult expressing her thoughts and ideas about a piece of literature, in contrast to his preconceived notion about how all teens are supposed to act, speak and behave, David MCCullough feels the need to question this young woman’s age. The impossibility of a 12-year-old having a clear sense of character and a thoughtful analysis of Hazel as a character so undermines his concept of what a 12-year-old is supposed to be like, that McCullough can not believe her age.

The panel also seems to have an incredibly undeveloped understanding of YA, quickly dismissing it as merely a marketing category before moving on to another topic. Bayard confesses that, while he doesn’t actually understand what YA really is, his new book will have a teenage protagonist and so he is being pushed by his publishers to market it as YA.  When asked if he thought many authors were in a similar position, Bayard replies “ I think many authors are because that’s — YA is one of the few growth sectors in publishing right now” (11:32:32).

While the panel is quick to declare that YA is a marketing category and not an actual genre, they are strangely inconsistent in comparing TFioS to “real” or “classic” literature. At various points throughout the program, each panelist says the book is beautifully written, delves into incredible emotions, and uses lots of literary tropes and themes. However, when asked if the book is a classic, or will become a classic, the answer is a unanimous no. The major reason: because “nothing happens.” Skurnick makes the case that what people “want in later generations is events” and that there isn’t enough action and adventure in this novel to make it really literary. And yet, one of the major criticisms of literary fiction is often that it is about thoughts, emotions and internal struggles, rather than events. It seems that the panelists are equally unclear about what criteria might make a novel a classic and so can only conclude that because this book is  for teens, popular, and about a girl, it can’t possibly become a classic.

Further, the panelists have a downright offensive approach to the gendering of YA literature. Bayard defines YA lit in the following way:

BAYARD: If we’re talking about it as a genre, as it’s popularly conceived, obviously it has a teenage protagonist, often female, almost always female, in addition to whatever male protagonists are in there, and it also has a sense, kind of what we talked about before, which is that the child is father to the man. That the teenagers are the ones who have the corner on wisdom, who understand the world best of all. And as Lizzie said, teenagers can be extremely wise, so I don’t want to say that that’s a myth, that’s a lie. I just — it’s just a refraction of the world into a teenage perspective. That’s my clumsy way of defining it” 11:46:22

By noting that YA literature nearly always features a female protagonist who mistakenly views herself as more important than she is, Bayard displays an extremely dismissive attitude towards the genre in general. Shortly after this definition, however, McCullough names a set of books he thinks of as YA titles, all of which feature male protagonists: Stewart Little, Wind in the Willows and Catcher in the Rye. These male-led novels, McCullough argues, appeal to people who are 17 and 80-years old. Thus, the overall argument of this section appears to be that classic YA literature has male protagonists and appeals to everyone, not just teens, while contemporary YA is female-centered and appeals only to teens because it is “just a refraction of the world into a teenage perspective.”

Further, at the start of the program, the host Kay asks McCullough what made The Fault in Our Stars (TFioS) into such a phenomenon. McCullough responds: “I think the intensity of the emotions and the urgency of it all. It’s — Hazel is, to I think the adolescent girl what Spiderman or Superman is to the adolescent boy. She represents the ideal to which so many, if not secretly, quietly, aspire. She’s so smart and feels things so deeply. And I think that resonates with kids” (11:08:15).

First of all, McCullough seems to be implying that only teenage girls will be able to read and enjoy TFioS, because the major success of the novel is Hazel’s appeal to girls. Second, comes the downright offensive notion that girls, who like feelings and emotions, will like Hazel in an analogous way to how boys, who like action and adventure, like Spiderman. The idea that while boys get to daydream about crime fighting with superheroes, girls are supposed to “secretly, quietly aspire” to be homebound, sickly, weak, smart but emotional and the object of male attention. The gender stereotypes employed in this analogy are never questioned by any of the panelists and the host, Kay, continues to refer back to this concept of “Hazel as Spiderman” throughout the show.

I am relieved to recognize similar criticisms of this program both from comments made by callers to the show and from comments posted on the NPR website. I am also relieved to know that callers like Mary, the oncology nurse who called in halfway through the program, were actually able to bring the panelists attention to their own ignorance, privileges and assumptions. However, I fear that this show only perpetuated a larger cultural impulse to denigrate young adults and to find all cultural artifacts associated with that age group (literature, music, video games, media) to be necessarily deficient. The attitude and disrespect demonstrated by the panelists joins a larger chorus of adults decrying the rise in popularity of YA lit as inappropriate or embarrassing for adults to be associated with; this attitude is snobbish, naïve and lacks a historical recognition of reading histories in the US.  While I recognize that in these types of programs, the panelists don’t necessarily represent the views of the parent station, I think NPR should think carefully in the future about who they choose to talk about teens, YA literature, and popular culture. We at Swampish would be happy to recommend a few names.

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